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4 May, 2013

World Press Freedom Day: U.N. Decries ‘Grim Catalogues’ of Attacks on Journalists


United Nations, Department of Public Information, 03 May 2013 – The increasing violence across the world against traditional and new media journalists alike undermined the very foundation of democratic societies, good governance, freedom of expression, and the right to receive and impart information and ideas, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, said top United Nations officials and journalists today during an observance of the twentieth anniversary of World Press Freedom Day May 3.

2012 marked the deadliest year for journalists, with at least 23 professional and 58 citizen journalists killed, according to a report released Friday by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). RSF released its annual Press Freedom Index to coincide with World Press Freedom Day. Along with ranking countries on respect for media freedom, RSF also published a list of 39 “predators of freedom of information.”

If there were any questions about why the Day was observed, said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his opening remarks, one had only to look at the “grim catalogues” on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) website of murders of journalists who had been killed for doing their jobs.  Those incidents spanned the globe, he said, noting the reporter in the Middle East shot dead by a sniper; the assassination of a radio manager in Latin America; the fatal rebel attack of a radio announcer in Africa; and in Europe, the journalist who finally succumbed to the wounds he suffered in a beating years earlier that left him infirm and unable to speak.

Such targeting, he said, went beyond traditional media outlets, and now included social media, blogs and citizen-led reporting, with cyber-attacks and legislative manoeuvres being used as tools of coercion.  Journalists were also being detained, many languishing for years in “brutal conditions” as a result of sham trials and trumped-up charges.

He strongly condemned all such attacks and repression, voicing concern that many perpetrators were going unpunished.  Freedom of expression and the right to receive and impart information and ideas was enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he said, noting also the recently adopted implementation strategy for the United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.

But, more could be done, he stated, including greater protection of the freedom of press through the rule of law.  In that, he urged all stakeholders to translate the Action Plan into actions on the ground to help create a safer environment for the press, and he underscored that all journalists, across all media, must be able to do their jobs, as “when it is safe to speak, the whole world benefits”.

Along those lines, General Assembly President Vuk Jeremić said that, indeed, the Human Right Declaration affirmed that seeking and receiving information through any media, regardless of frontiers, was a right.  Now, more than ever, he said, ensuring accuracy of information was crucial.  In an increasingly digitalized world, it was all too simple to transform gossip and speculation into news.  What was now communicated through a news wire had the potential to go down as history, he cautioned.

He hailed journalism as a noble calling, noting that, in every society, the press had the potential to present an objective portrait of a nation and hold Governments, companies and individuals accountable, thereby advancing the common good of society.  By virtue of their commitment, journalists put themselves in harms way to perform their profession, and for that reason, they deserved “full solidarity” to keep them safe.

The findings of the UNESCO report, which stated 200 members of the press had been killed in 2012, including 41 in Syria and 18 in Somalia were alarming, he said, paying tribute to the brave men and women who gave their life to a very important cause.  He pledged his and the General Assembly’s commitment to end that violence so as to allow journalists to practise their profession without fear or danger.  The press was seen as the ultimate instrument of democracy in the twenty-first century, and the Assembly understood that protecting journalists was a prerequisite to “staying on the right side of history”.

Under-Secretary-General for Communication and Public Information Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal underscored that such freedom offered the public the space to voice concerns and aspirations, allowed truths to be unearthed and ensured a country’s people reliable information from multiple sources.  Thus, journalists and media workers should not have to jeopardize their safety in their efforts to “serve the information needs of their societies”.

The focus of the Day, he said, would be on ensuring the safety of journalists to do their work, off and online.  However, it was evident that media workers were not safe, with attacks against journalist becoming an “all-too-common phenomenon”.  That was resulting in self-censorship across societies and the erosion of the public trust in the judicial systems.  Further, it emboldened those who used violence against journalists.

The meeting’s panel and round table, he continued, would address how the international community could strengthen press freedom through the promotion of a safe media environment.  Such actions would not only take steps to combat impunity, but enable journalists to carry out their duties.

The contents of public information and communications, said Lyutha al-Mughairy, Chairperson of the Committee on Information, should be placed at the heart of the strategic management of the United Nations.  The Committee believed that the primary mission of the Department of Public Information was to provide, through its outreach activities, accurate, comprehensive, balanced and relevant information to the public on the tasks and responsibilities of the United Nations.

She said the Committee remained deeply concerned by the disparities existing between developed and developing countries and the consequences arising from those disparities.  It was critical to support practical training programmes for broadcasters and journalists from public, private and other media in developing countries, she said, underlining the need to rectify the growing imbalance in the current process of development of information and communications technologies.

She also underlined the relevancy of making appropriate use of all official languages of the United Nations with the aim of eliminating the disparity between the use of English and the use of the five other official languages.  That could strengthen communications capacities and potentially improve media infrastructure and communications technologies in developing countries, especially in the areas of training and in the dissemination of information.

Also addressing the meeting was Philippe Kridelka, Director of the UNESCO Liaison Office in New York.  Alarmed that 9 out of 10 cases of crimes against journalists, media workers and social media producers went unpunished, he stated:  “This cannot stand.”  Violence and impunity undermined basic rights and freedoms, eroded public faith in the rule of law, encouraged self-censorship and poisoned governance.  As the United Nations agency with the mandate to promote and protect freedom of expression, UNESCO stood up for journalists, media workers and social media producers across the world.

He stressed the importance for the Internet to become a global public resource.  He also highlighted UNESCO’s work with the authorities in Tunisia, Myanmar and Egypt to strengthen media freedoms through sector-wide reform, support to journalism education and pre-electoral assistance.  In addition, the organization was developing the legal frameworks necessary for free speech in Afghanistan, Iraq, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and it was promoting the quality of journalism in conflict situations and following natural disasters, such as in Haiti, in Pakistan and in Iraq.

Coordinated by UNESCO, the United Nations Plan of Action set clear principles, objectives and measures to be taken across the United Nations system and with Member States and civil society, he said, adding that the goal was clear — “to ensure every journalist can do his or her job safely and no crime goes unpunished”.  Freedom of expression must be respected equally in the “real” and the “digital” worlds, where news was increasingly produced and consumed, he said.

Emphasizing that the so-called “Fourth Estate” was the guardian of free expression, Pamela Falk, President of the United Nations Correspondents Associations, said it shone the light on injustice and asked the tough questions of the powerful.  However, 2012 had been the deadliest year for reporters, with 121 killed in the line of duty.  Imprisonment was also at a record high, with 200 journalists jailed by those in power seeking to silence their critics.  That was a 25 per cent increase from the previous year.  Additionally, female journalists were subjected to mass assault and rape, and thousands of reporters were injured in war zones.

As for “what to do”, she said that international law held the key.  She pointed in particular to the Declaration’s article 19, which specifically states that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression […] regardless of frontiers”.  The meaning of “frontiers” included geographic and political boundaries, she said, adding the relevance of that phrase to the Internet, which had no frontiers.  If Facebook members were members of a country, the nation would be the third largest in the world.  There were also more than 200 million blogs in dozens of languages.

However, even with wide-ranging media outlets participating in reporting, journalists still needed to sort the truth through investigative and balanced reporting.  “They run towards the danger,” she said, risking their lives to pursue the truth.  And, more could be done to protect them, urging the full implementation of the United Nations Plan of Action on the safety of journalists.

Panel Discussion

Moderating a panel, entitled “Safe to speak:  Ensuring the safety of journalists and media workers”, was Maher Nasser, Director of the Outreach Division of the Department of Public Information.  The panel featured presentations by Marcela Turati, Co-founder of Periodistas de a Pie; Oliver Modi, Chairperson, the Union of Journalists of South Sudan; Suzanne Bilello, Senior Public Information and Liaison Officer at UNESCO; Joel Simon, Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists; and Kieran Dwyer, Chief, Public Affairs Section, Departments of Peacekeeping Operations and Field Support.

Speaking first, Ms. TURATI said that, as a Mexican journalist, she was deeply concerned with the situation in her country.  “We reporters are facing the situation every day,” she said.  That situation included a journalist being captured and tortured by a drug trafficker because of news that he or she should not have reported.  It was also when a radio or TV organization or a newspaper reported on violence and a fellow journalist goes missing, and then “is left in a garbage pile somewhere with a sign that says ‘this is because he or she wrote something that shouldn’t be written’,” she said.

Mexico was one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists and one of the top-10 countries in the world where the crimes against journalists went unpunished.   Mexico was not a country at war, she said, and yet, journalists in Mexico were “war correspondents on our own territory”.  Journalists did not die because of landmines; they died merely for being journalists.  As in any war, there was an attempt by the Government to control every part of the territory and journalists hampered those efforts.  Journalists were restricted and should not “speak out against human rights violations”, and were required to “keep quiet about information that might put the public in a panic”.  That included keeping silent about organized crime so that the public did not know what is really going on.

She expressed deep disappointment that her Government did not take part in the United Nations Plan of Action to protect journalists.  In Mexico, violations against journalists were systematic, and there was no justice for their deaths.  Freedom of expression was not the only thing at risk; also at risk was that people were not being informed.  She called for an investigation, and drew attention to a colleague of hers who had not only died, but also had suffered from “a crime against her honour”, as rumours were spread about her private life.

The “mechanisms of impunity were tarnishing the good name of journalists” who were being killed or disappearing in order to instil fear into colleagues to not organize investigations, she said, adding:  “Where impunity reigns, crimes were not investigated.”  Other problems included impartiality and autonomy, she said, adding that often, the prosecutor’s office was defending Governments.

She was encouraged to see citizens taking the role of journalists by creating blogs and websites, and “do the work that journalists cannot do”.  Citizens attempted to report on what was happening since media that criticized the Government remained isolated and were at risk.  That was a form of censorship.  The Mexican Government should be pressured to ensure the protection of journalists and implementation of the United Nations Plan of Action.  “We don’t want to see one more killing,” she said.

Mr. MODI heralded the Union of Journalists of South Sudan as an extraordinary accomplishment after decades of civil war, as his country was “still a new baby country, only one-year-old and some months”.  There was now an established and functional media in South Sudan, and although the Constitution guaranteed freedom of press and information, it had not been “fully granted” to the media.  The Union was working closely with other stakeholders to ensure an independent media that was free and fair, and that would “push us ahead in building our nation”.  There were more than 600 journalists on the ground, 40 media houses, five media organizations, a radio system that extended over most of South Sudan’s 10 States, and a Government-owned television channel.

Still, there were challenges to an independent, free media were numerous, he said, highlighting the absence of a regulatory media authority.  Such issues were under consideration by the Parliament, but support for them was mixed.  Another challenge was the lack of trained journalists, necessary for balanced reporting.  Moreover, journalists were being arrested, detained and harassed, and those writing about corruption in South Sudan were taking risks, as they were “taking the spoon from somebody’s mouth”.  He noted that an editor of The Juba Monitor had been arrested for publishing an article on accountability with respect to the funding of a particular State.

Journalists risked their lives and were sometimes killed because of their investigative work, he said, adding that working under such fear was impacting investigative reporting.  Guns were everywhere.  “Someone can just come and kill you at dinner time,” he said, stressing that unless guns were collected, media practices would not be able to be carried out.

Logistics also challenged a fully functioning, independent press, he said, noting, among other concerns, poor Internet service, the lack of printing presses, and impediments to reporting and distribution, owing to poor roads still laden with landmines.  Underpayment also led journalists to resign.  “We started from scratch,” he said, highlighting the need for institutional capacity-building for media houses to meet the international standard of journalism.

Because war had been present in the country for decades, people grew up in war, were educated in war, and were used to war, he said.  In order to ensure that the media was not Government-controlled, best practices on ethics and dialogue were essential to enhance understanding of all parties of journalists’ function.  “We need to fix ourselves; all of us are needed to make the nation,” he stated.

Ms. BILELLO of UNESCO said that South Sudan was an example of how press developed in a new nation.  Turning to the situation in Mexico, she said the fact that dozens of journalists were murdered in a democracy was truly startling.  Still, she was optimistic about the number of journalists who braved the profession and remained dedicated to their noble cause; 600 in South Sudan was remarkable in a country of that size and they formed a core of professionals that carried the banner of freedom.  Indeed, she said, South Sudan was blessed with a generation of journalists who were coming up and focusing on informing the public.

She urged that more be done to enhance interaction between Government and the media.  In Mexico, for example, there had to be more respect for the job of journalists.  Although the United Nations Plan of Acton was an important initiative, more was required, including close cooperation with civil society and non-governmental organizations, to ensure that journalists were safe and free from fear.

Mr. SIMON, Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said that in his organization’s 32-year history, it had documented the cases of thousands of journalists who had been attacked, imprisoned, and murdered for doing their job.  In doing so, the Committee had become intimately familiar with their fears, trauma and flight from the countries they cherished.  It had known their families, shaken by violence, and witnessed their colleagues cowed into self-censorship.

On average, he said, 30 journalists were murdered every year, and the murders went unpunished in nearly 9 out of 10 cases.  Those cases were overwhelmingly local journalists reporting local stories.  Among the countries leading in journalist killings that evaded justice were established democracies, where rule of law should function, yet a culture of impunity prevailed. T hat absence of justice deterred journalists from critical reporting and left citizens with a more shallow understanding of their world.

He said that the reality was that journalists reporting on corruption, organized crime, conflict and politics were most likely to be killed.  That outrageous fact had been met largely with indifference on the part of law enforcement and Governments.  In about a third of the cases, Government links were suspected, thus reinforcing the cycle of impunity, he said.

The Committee had just released its 2013 Impunity Index, which showed that, for the first time, Nigeria was in the Index, joining Somalia, the only other African nation listed, he said.   Brazil had re-entered the Index last year, following a spate of new killings, particularly of provincial bloggers.  The report also showed that in almost half of the global cases, journalists were abducted or tortured before being killed.  The Committee, since launching its Global Campaign against Impunity in 2007, had undertaken high-level advocacy efforts targeting countries where the problem was particularly acute.

Empowering the media was a key part of securing public accountability, he said, adding that it was also a way to monitor institutional responsiveness and chronicle progress.  Journalists were at the forefront of using and testing access to information laws and transparency initiatives.  They exposed abuse and reported on institutional failures along with the people affected by them.  “Information is power,” he said, adding that as the international community celebrated World Press Freedom Day, “let us empower people all over the world who depend on a free and independent media to deliver to them the news and information they need to make informed decisions about their lives”.

Mr. DWYER said that the most rewarding part of his job in countries that had gone through “awful experiences” was working with young people who were passionate about becoming journalists and whose professionalism was fuelled by that passion.  “In war, truth is the first victim,” and in conflict and post-conflict countries, the stakes were so high for many players, that moving from the rule of the gun to the rule of the law took time.  In Somalia alone, which had a “courageous media sector”, 18 journalists had been killed in 2012.

He said that all actors knew the power of information and media, which was one reason media personnel and facilities got targeted.  Thus, it was even more important to protect journalists.  He acknowledged messages from his colleagues at several missions to be included in the dialogue, including Somalia, Afghanistan and Mali, to name a few.  Using Somalia again as an example, he said an absolute culture of impunity had allowed attacks against journalists and the media there.  Arbitrary attention by authorities, as well, prevented the press from doing the job.  He drew attention to the arrest and prosecution of both a woman alleging rape by national army personnel and the young journalist who reported it.

After many years of war, peace was not an automatic, and the media was on the front lines and cutting edge in that process, he said.  The difficult task was to develop a culture of freedom of expression and a professional independent media, especially when, in some post-conflict countries, the media was dominated by former warlords and corrupt officials.

He said that professional training helped to buffer journalists from “that incredible pressure” by those in power.  Protecting journalists was a key part, as well.  Working very closely with United Nations agencies, such as UNESCO and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), as well as bilateral and multilateral agencies, the Peacekeeping Department supported United Nations radio stations with more than 180 radio journalists, 60 of those in South Sudan.

In the ensuing discussion with the panellists, representatives of States, non-governmental organizations and civil society groups, questions were raised on issues ranging from the role of women journalists to the use of the Internet in media endeavours.  One area of focus was the danger women journalists faced, as, according to Mr. SIMON, they were particularly vulnerable when covering demonstrations as was evident in Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution.

Women journalists also faced threats in Mexico, added Ms. TURATI, especially as they were reporting increasingly on the connection between drug traffickers and the Government.  Those women were also more likely to get attacked in their personal life, and some young female journalists even worried about having children, fearing that they too might be threatened.

Discussion also centred on the role of civil society, with Mr. DWYER noting an increasing connection between journalism and non-governmental organizations and United Nations agencies.  In Liberia, for example, he had assisted the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) with a radio programme on child-bearing issues.

On questions concerning journalists’ training in South Sudan, Mr. MODI said that when promoting democracy, it was important to acknowledge that media was its cornerstone.  It was also important to educate civil society about their rights.  Most Governments used civil society for their own best interests especially during times of elections.  “After it wins an election, the Government sits back,” he said.  The media had a responsibility to inform civil society that the Government was answerable to them, not the other way around.

Delegations also participated in the discussion, including a representative of Mexico, who highlighted the adoption of laws protecting journalists.  Ms. TURATI said she was looking forward to seeing those changes take place.  However, she said that the new Government had turned a “blind eye” to violence against media personnel, which had increased by 20 per cent, including four attacks on press, with one reporter missing and one killed.

Among her other comments, she noted that electronic media was a crucial tool in reporting, but that journalists were being prevented from publishing daily death counts from cartel violence.  However, citizens were using their cell phones and videos to document the shooting and killing in the street in order for information to be available about cartel activity.  There had been a Facebook page reporting such incidents, but those running it had been threatened by the cartels.  Journalists, now linking up through the Internet, were taking classes in encrypting information so that the use of social media and emails could be done safely.  “We have to do this because we’re always afraid,” she said.

When asked by a correspondent about access to South Sudan officials by the press, Mr. MODI, said that the issue of corruption in South Sudan was real and that those involved were trying to prevent the media from covering the situation.  Yet, even with all the challenges facing the establishment of a free press, he stressed:  “We are not worried about that; we know we will achieve our goals.”

The morning’s events were followed by an afternoon round-table discussion entitled “United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity”.